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Diabetes no longer a disease of the old in Malaysia as experts call for new solutions

KUALA LUMPUR: When R. Kumaran, 70, was diagnosed with diabetes about 35 years ago, he just shrugged it off.

He didn’t care much about his health and continued to indulge in several bad habits, including the consumption of aerated drinks such as Coca-Cola. 

It was only in 2010 when a stent was inserted in his heart that he started to take his condition more seriously.

“I was young and adamant. I didn’t want to accept it. I ignored what the doctors told me and didn’t take care of myself,” he told CNA at his home in Kuala Lumpur.   

By then, it was already late. Just three years later, he had to amputate his right leg after health complications.

These days, Mr Kumaran, who used to work in the insurance industry, prefers drinking warm water. He also measures the level of his blood sugar much more diligently as well as taking his two daily insulin jabs.     

Mr Kumaran who uses a wheelchair is just one of the estimated 3.9 million people in Malaysia who are living with the disease. 

This number does not include those who are believed to be suffering from the disease but have yet to be diagnosed.

According to Malaysia’s National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) – conducted every four years – the prevalence of diabetes increased from 11.2 per cent in 2011 to 13.4 percent in 2015 and to 18.3 per cent in 2019. There are no newer numbers available publicly.

This means nearly one in every five adult Malaysians are diabetic. 

According to the International Diabetes Federation, the prevalence of diabetes among adults in Singapore is 14.9 per cent in while Thailand has a prevalence rate of 11.6 per cent.

The increasing number of diabetics in the country is one reason the Health Ministry recently launched a campaign in Putrajaya to reduce sugar intake, one of several similar drives organised over the years, going back to the 1990s. 

During the latest campaign launch on Sunday (Oct 29), Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa said many studies have proven the connection between the overconsumption of sugar and the occurrence of various types of diseases including diabetes.

She added that the cost of treating diabetes alone was RM4.38 billion (US$920 million) a year in 2017, compared to RM2.04 billion in 2011. 

“The increase in the number of patients will place a huge burden on the country’s economy and finances. This directly affects the level of productivity of the national workforce,” she said.

Several health experts told CNA that they foresee the prevalence of diabetes increasing in the future especially among the young, posing a major public health risk that could put more strain on the healthcare system of the country.

They said that there needs to be more focus on education and awareness campaigns about the disease as well as steps to deter consumption of sugary drinks, like Singapore’s move in requiring pre-packaged drinks to display labels showing their sugar content levels.


Part-time property agent Siti Nazmalinda, 38, only realised she had diabetes three years ago when she fell sick and sought treatment from the clinic.   

The mother of three children from age nine to 13 was diagnosed with the disease and her blood glucose reading was recorded at 27mmol/L.

A blood glucose level above 15mmol/L is considered to be too high while a normal non-fasting blood sugar level goes up to 7.8 mmol/L. 

“The doctor told me that I was lucky to be able to walk into the clinic. He told me that most people with that reading would be unconscious,” she told CNA.  

Worried about her condition especially as her children are still young, Mrs Siti has taken steps of controlling her food intake and exercising intensively.

Besides her insulin shots, she fasts intermittently and tries to walk at least 10,000 steps every day. Her weight had decreased from 90kg three years ago to about 73kg now. 

Her blood glucose levels are still high at times, but at a much more manageable level now.  

Besides social media groups where she shares her diabetes journey, Mrs Siti also gets motivation from her family and friends. 

“Even my nine-year-old will ask me if I have achieved 10,000 steps a day. It helps when you have people supporting you on your journey,” she said.  

Mr Mohideen also hoped that Malaysia would follow in the steps of Singapore that has mandated nutrition labels on sugary drinks.

In December last year, Singapore’s Ministry of Health announced that pre-packaged drinks such as soft drinks, juice and milk will be graded based on the sugar and saturated fat content in beverages. 

The labels are colour-coded according to four categories, with category for instance D being the category with the highest sugar and fat thresholds.

The ministry also announced in August this year that food-and-beverage outlets will be required by end-2023 to include nutrition labels on their menus indicating drinks that contain higher levels of sugar and saturated fat.

These include freshly brewed drinks from coffee shops, freshly squeezed juices and bubble tea.

Dr Sharifa, the public health expert, also believed that the increased tax for sugary drinks was minimal and might not deter people from buying these drinks.

She pointed out that there was an influx of sweetened beverages in the market these days unlike before, and this also contributed to the onset of diabetes.      

Dr Sharifa believed that the government needed to increase awareness of good eating habits and the importance of exercise among youngsters in schools. 

Mr Kumaran agrees with Dr Sharifa and hopes that the Health Ministry and Education Ministry would work together to spread the message about healthy living. 

“There must be awareness about this in schools. It is best to start them from a young age,” he said. 

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